In a major setback for the ruling Trinamool Congress, the Calcutta High Court refused ‘interim bail’ to three of its legislators, including two ministers — Firhad Hakim and Subrata Mukherjee — in the Narada sting operation case in which they were arrested on May 17 by the CBI. The court adjourned the case till Thursday.
Besides Hakim and Mukherjee, TMC MLA Madan Mitra and former Kolkata mayor Sovan Chatterjee, who had switched over to the BJP and then quit the party before the elections, and arrested in the case, will continue to remain in judicial custody.
The petition of the CBI seeking transfer of trial in the case and the recalling application filed by the four leaders on the high court’s stay order on the bail granted by a CBI court on Monday will be further heard by the division bench comprising acting Chief Justice Rajesh Bindal and Justice Arijit Banerjee on Thursday. The high court on Monday night stayed the lower court’s decision to grant bail to the four leaders, arrested and charge-sheeted by the CBI in the Narada sting case.
The division bench had said that it deemed it appropriate to stay the special court’s order and direct that the “accused person shall be treated to be in judicial custody till further orders”. The four leaders were arrested on Monday morning from their residences in the city in connection with the Narada sting case that is being investigated by the CBI on an order by the high court.
At present, all the four leaders are undergoing treatment for various health complications at the hospital inside Presidency Correctional Center and SSKM College and Hospital.
The hearing on Wednesday continued for over two-and-a-half hours senior advocate and Congress MP Abhishek Manu Singhvi defending the ministers. Singhvi said no court in India can pass an order cancelling bail without first hearing the accused. He added the CBI’s stand is ironic as the probe agency argued before the court late in the evening (on May 17) without serving him a copy.
“No court in India can give an order cancelling bail without giving notice to the accused and hearing the accused. If they want to challenge bail, they could have done it in a proper way, not in this chaotic manner,” Singhvi said.
Regarding the concerns of Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the CBI, about the possibility of intimidation of witnesses (if all four leaders were released on bail), Singhvi said, “Since 2014, there has been no intimidation of witnesses. In 2021, they (CBI) rushed to the Governor despite Constitution bench judgments of the Supreme Court. Nothing happened in these years. Also, they could have destroyed all possible evidence by now. It is common sense.”
On Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s visit to Nizam Palace and a large gathering in the area when the four leaders were being questioned, Singhvi said, “Everybody has a democratic right to protest in our country. The leaders (Banerjee and other party functionaries) felt their colleagues (Narada accused) were arrested (by the CBI) on political vendetta because somebody could not digest defeat in elections (2021 Assembly elections). The attempt is to connect two unconnected things. Their bail and protests are not connected. Unless such protests impede justice dispensation, it cannot be used to deny bail. Also, the protests did not obstruct the probe agency to produce them before the court.”
While claiming that the protests were peaceful, Singhvi said, “What happened was a peaceful Gandhian protest by the Law minister (Malay Ghatak) and others, including Kalyan Banerjee. They also urged people to maintain a law and order. And, the chief minister herself did not indulge in the protests. Like the family members of the accused, she just expressed her dissent over the way the leaders were arrested.”
Mehta said, “India has never witnessed such hooliganism (referring to the gathering outside Nizam Palace) ever in history. It was an orchestrated attempt to frustrate justice.”
While Singhvi was putting forward his argument, the acting chief justice said, “Can we continue tomorrow?”
Soon after, Singhvi requested that the accused be released on interim bail. “They are in hospital. Where can they run away? They will be subject to Your Lordship’s jurisdiction (on interim bail). It is a request.”
Senior Advocate Sidharth Luthra, who also argued for the TMC leaders, said, “They (the CBI) did not arrest them for four years. In the meantime, they have filed a charge sheet in the case. They cooperated in the probe and now what was the urgency to arrest them when the investigation is over?”
The CBI has also sought a transfer of the trial of the case outside Bengal, citing protests by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) supporters outside its office, and has made the CM, law minister and MP Kalyan Banerjee as parties in the case. The probe agency informed the Calcutta HC that its officials were threatened by the CM and gheraoed by a mob on Monday.
“We wanted to take all of them in police custody, but could not ask for it because of ‘terror’ created on May 17 in presence of the chief minister,” the CBI said.
On Monday, high drama had unfolded outside Hakim’s residence in south Kolkata’s Chetla area around 8am, after a team of CBI officers reached there. Amid protests by his supporters, Hakim was taken to Nizam Palace after 20 minutes of questioning. The other leaders reached Nizam Palace after being summoned by the probe agency.
Soon after, the chief minister and other senior party leaders rushed to Nizam Palace and accused the CBI of working on the instruction of the BJP.
The TMC supremo has termed the arrests illegal and asked investigators to arrest her as well. The chief minister left the CBI office late afternoon.
A few days ago, West Bengal governor Jagdeep Dhankhar has accorded prosecution sanction to the CBI against the three TMC MLAs. Assembly Speaker Biman Banerjee said the arrest was illegal as the probe agency did not take his permission.
The CBI said a case was registered in April 2017 after “public servants were caught on camera while receiving illegal gratification”.
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